For what ends do sociologists labor?

I recently gave a short presentation in a training seminar regarding introducing first year students to different disciplinary perspectives. For each of the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, I described methods and goals. For the goals of the social sciences, I put down “just society” and “social wrongs righted.” One of my colleagues asked me a question about this: “Do the people at the top R1 schools adhere to these goals?” Just having returned from the ASA meetings in Philadelphia and thinking about some of the things I saw there, I said yes.

This is a good question to consider on Labor Day. What are sociologists after when they work? Here are some options:

-just society/social wrong righted: a mindset devoted to improving society, sometimes attributed to an activist approach though American sociology has a deep tradition of this (even if it was shunted into social work and not promoted as much at leading schools)

-knowing more about the social world: this quest for knowledge and a better understanding of whatever phenomena is under study could be at the root of every academic enterprise

-a way to achieve status and power: the field may be limited be compared to others but academic titles and academic merits (published articles, name recognition, grants, school, etc.) still provide a certain status

-the joy of teaching and mentoring students: these expectations likely differ dramatically across institutions (let alone personalities) but there can be both immediate and long-term gratification in making a difference in the life of students

-a satisfying way to occupy one’s mind and fulfill intellectual curiosity

I suppose individual sociologists might be able to pursue unique combinations of these five options within their own experiences and institutional contexts. Yet, on the whole, I’m pretty comfortable asserting sociology and other social sciences want to make the world a better place.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

Study suggests more traffic is related to stronger metro economies

What if traffic is not something to avoid but rather a byproduct of a strong economy?

By comparing historic traffic data against several economic markers, the authors found virtually no indication that gridlock stalled commerce. In fact, it looked like the economy had its own HOV lane. Region by region, GDP and jobs grew, even as traffic increased. This does not mean speed bumps should come standard on every new highway. Traffic still sucks, and things that suck should be fixed. What this study does is acknowledge that economically vibrant cities will always have congestion. So transportation planners should instead focus on ways to alleviate the misery rather than eliminate the existence of congestion…

Marshall acknowledges that no statistic can paint a perfect picture of reality, but he says he and his coauthor wrangled their analysis into coherence. Once they accounted for all the hanging chads, the overall trend was pretty clear: Traffic really didn’t do much to the economy. In fact, they found that if anything, places with higher car congestion seemed to have stronger economies. Specifically, per capita GDP and job growth both tracked upward as traffic wait times got worse.

It sounds like the study suggests the better the economy is, the more traffic there will be. I could think of two observations that go with these findings:

  1. The idea of ghost towns, both literal and figurative. If there is a lack of economic activity, the streets and buildings will be pretty empty.
  2. Jane Jacobs argued the most interesting neighborhoods are those with a lot of street and sidewalk activity. This is certainly related to economic activity of businesses, shops, and restaurants as well as the ability of residents and visitors to spend money.

Even if this is true, I would guess this knowledge would do little to help people stuck in gridlock feel better about the situation. They should think “I’m glad I have a good job in a thriving metro area and the traffic is the small penalty to pay for that.”

Perhaps a final piece to this would be to think about what would need to change in urban areas or driving to decouple these factors. Would a significant investment in mass transit counter this connection? More telecommuting and working from home?

The declining value of shopping mall real estate

The declining shopping mall has led to a drop in value for these properties:

“It’s a tough environment. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the decline of the department store to happen as quickly as it did,” said Joe Coradino, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns 21 malls in the Mid-Atlantic region. “The sellers are clearly on their knees.”

The Philadelphia-based REIT has sold 17 bottom-tier malls since 2013. The last deal, completed in September, was a $33.2 million transaction for the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, Pennsylvania, anchored by Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears stores. If those same properties were on the market today, prices would be substantially lower, Coradino said…

Not long ago, some of the biggest names in private equity, such as KKR & Co. and Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group, were laying out substantial sums to snap up retail properties. In 2012 and 2013, Starwood purchased a combined $2.6 billion of malls from Westfield, followed less than a year later by a $1.4 billion deal to buy seven malls from Taubman Centers Inc. From 2012 to 2014, KKR bought four regional malls for about $502 million, Real Capital data show. That demand has all but evaporated as timing a wager on American malls becomes increasingly treacherous…

It’s easy to understand their reluctance to sell now. Prices for malls fell 14 percent in the past 12 months, even as values for other types of commercial properties, such as warehouses and office buildings, rose or held steady, according to Green Street Advisors LLC. At least four properties have been pulled from the market in recent months because the bids were too low, Dobrowski said.

Even with efforts to save some shopping malls, from adding restaurants and entertainment options, housing, and community spaces, a good number will simply not survive. They will not be desirable enough for retail activity nor prime spots for redevelopment. They may sit empty for much longer than communities desire or can bear. I suspect we will see a lot of potential creative solutions to these dead shopping malls as land owners, developers, and communities try to turn them into sites that again contribute to the surrounding area.

Perhaps the most interesting question here is how low prices will get before they interest someone who will buy them. Are we headed for the equivalent of $1 homes for shopping malls? Perhaps they will become subject to blight and renewal programs? Will the price be low enough for neighbors or communities to buy them simply to raze them? Perhaps they will be the dystopian spaces featured in films like Gone Girl?

Would new local taxes on large tech firms really cause them to leave Silicon Valley?

Several communities in Silicon Valley are considering levying special taxes on large companies, possibly affecting some of the biggest tech companies:

Cupertino, Mountain View and East Palo Alto have begun to ponder new taxes based on employer headcounts — levies that could jolt Apple and Google — and if voters endorse the plans, a fresh wave of such measures may roll toward other corporate coffers.

Alarmed by traffic and other issues brought on by massive expansion projects, the three Silicon Valley cities are pushing forward with separate plans to impose new taxes that could be used to make transit and other improvements…

A lot of factors point to this being a prime time for efforts such as these. San Francisco ranked fifth worst for traffic congestion in the world — and third worst in the U.S. — last year, according to INRIX Global Congestion Ranking. Record housing prices in 2018 boosted the median price of a single family home in the Bay Area to a record $893,000 in April, according to a CoreLogic report.

Federal tax cuts also have improved the balance sheets on an array of U.S. companies, large and small. Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies have contributed to the gridlock on freeways and soaring housing costs as they’ve grown rapidly in recent years, with brisk hiring and expansion in unexpected areas and mega-leases that gobble up huge swaths of office space.

If this works the way that some would argue it does, then the local taxes will be viewed by the tech companies as an unnecessary burden for their operations. They should then consider moving elsewhere where they are not subject to such local taxes. Indeed, if they wanted to move sizable operations, they could probably get numerous communities to offer them tax breaks.

However, this assumes that the local taxes are the primary factor that determines where companies and organizations locate. Instead, there are a variety of factors that both support and work against staying in their current location. I assume these are important reasons for why Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are in this location: the construction and maintenance of large headquarters, proximity to other like-minded organizations, an talented employee pool nearby, and the proximity to major cities like San Jose and San Francisco. Are local tax issues more important than these other concerns? Probably not. And even if they are, it would take some time before a large organization could significantly alter their operations in response.

McMansion ad campaign aimed at McDonald’s

Burger King has a new advertising campaign that shows off one particular feature of the purported McMansion backyards of McDonald’s executives:

Each of the company’s newest print ads, designed by an agency called DAVID Miami, claims to show what was once the lavish backyard of a real McDonald’s executive, the kicker being that each yard also appears to contain a grill.

“Flame grilling is hard to resist,” read the words printed over each grilling apparatus, the suggestion being that McDonald’s executives themselves preferred a flame-grilled patty…

AdAge reports that some of the photos were taken from real estate listings, meaning these particular grills may not have necessarily belonged to the “retired McDonald’s director” or “retired McDonald’s president” who may have used those backyards.

The primary emphasis is on the grill, a staple of many an American backyard. American homes and summer has long been associated with a male homeowner taking raw meat to the backyard and cooking it on the grill as the family plays and gathers around.

Of course, these are not just any grills or any homes. The news story includes three ad images. The grills look rather long – so they likely have more than four burners – and they have a stainless steel exterior. (In one image, there appears to be a Green Egg next to the stainless steel grill.) Given that these are grills supposedly owned by executives plus they are located at large homes, these are likely expensive grills.

Beyond tying McDonald’s executives to expensive grills, this also connects them to undesirable homes: McMansions. While the purpose of the ads is the grills, these grills are in front of expensive and large homes. But, they are not just mansions – they are McMansions. I’m not sure if there is a larger message here or not: should McDonald’s feel shame about having derided homes named after their restaurants (the Mc- prefix)? (Compared to the fast food of Burger King, this seems like a better pitch for places like Five Guys or Smashburger that would claim to have a more premium burger.) Does this suggest their executives have bad taste? Does this mean Burger King executives have nicer homes?

 

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?